Earlier in the winter, I was saddened to learn of the loss of the junk rigged schooner Easy Go and today I was shocked to learn of the abandonment of the 42-foot catamaran Be Good Too; luckily there was no loss of life in either case. I think there is a lot we can all learn from both these cases and that’s what this post is about.
But first I need to say that this is a difficult post to write. Drawing lessons from the actions of people who have been through a harrowing experience at sea from the comfort of a warm condo in the Canadian Rockies has the potential to be the worst kind of sanctimonious second guessing.
I will try to avoid that and concentrate on what we can all learn from these two abandonments, but inevitably the very process of highlighting lessons learned carries with it some implied criticism. I can’t help that, but do know that I am only too aware of the mistakes that I have made in my offshore sailing career and that the fact that I have never lost a boat or had to call for assistance was on several occasions more the result of good luck than good judgement.
One other thing. I have based this post on two short accounts of what happened, posted by two of the participants. This is by no means a well researched technical analysis. I could easily be wrong about the details or the inference I have drawn from these accounts. However, I have also cranked in my own considerable experience in the area as well as my reading of the accounts of scores of other losses in the same area over some 40 years. What I’m trying to convey here is that I may have one or two details wrong about these particular casualties, but don’t let that influence you into missing the overall message.
Ok, enough covering my ass, on to my thoughts on the lessons learned.
Winter North Atlantic
You have all heard my rants about the hubris induced by the assumption that a good weather router can keep us out of trouble no matter the ocean or the season, so I won’t burden you with that yet again.
So let’s look at timing. Easy go left Nova Scotia on or about November 1st and Be Good Too left New York on January 8th. By early November winter weather patterns have set in in Nova Scotia and the same goes double for the latitude of New York in January.
I don’t care how strong a boat is, or how strong the crew, the bottom line is that the North Atlantic in winter, at least north of Cape Hatteras, is simply a dangerous place for a yacht and most should not be out there.
That’s a pretty sweeping statement I know. But I’m not alone in that opinion. Don Street feels the same way. I would urge you to read Don’s article in full. Applying Don’s wisdom and my own experience I would say that Easy Go, rather than leaving direct from Nova Scotia, would have been better off to coast-hop south to at least Newport and better still Norfolk, Virginia, before striking out for the West Indies.
This would have given her a potentially better sailing angle with the prevailing southwest winds and increased her chances of getting clear of the Gulf Stream before being hit by bad weather.
This is particularly true for a small and relatively slow boat like Easy Go. What might be OK for our own 56-foot cutter, or a boat like her, capable of easily reeling off 170-mile days in most weather is perhaps not advisable in a junk rigged dory barely capable of 100-miles a day, and far less than that when the wind comes forward and the sea gets up.
By January, the winter weather has moved further south and so the same theory applies to Be Good Too: In my opinion, she would have been far better off to coast hop south and leave from Beaufort, North Carolina, south of Hatteras.
Beware The Gulf Stream
I have said this over and over again, but when crews as experienced as those on these two boats make the same mistake over and over again–in both cases, as far as I can see, much of the damage that lead to abandonment occurred in the Gulf Stream–I will repeat myself.
Do not even think about entering the Gulf Stream in heavy weather. Heave-to outside the Stream. Sail at right angles to your desired course. Turn around and go back. Have Scotty beam you up. I don’t care what you do, but don’t enter the Stream unless you are sure that you can clear the Stream and any associated eddies, before the weather gets nasty…got it?
And don’t assume that just because the strong wind is forecast to blow in the same direction as the core current is running that you will be OK. The Stream is not a nice well behaved river that all runs in the same direction. There are frequently areas on either side of the Stream where the current can be running in the opposite direction to the core.
Get in an area with as little as 1.5 knots running against winds in excess of 30 knots that have been blowing for any length of time and you will encounter dangerous breaking waves that can damage even the most well found boat. These are not freak waves, or rogue waves, or anything else strange or unusual. They are simply the result of wind against current and they will always be in these areas when these conditions occur, so if you don’t want to try conclusions (battle it out) with these waves, don’t be in those areas.
By the way, I’m not saying that it is easy to avoid such areas and that anyone who gets caught in one was stupid, particularly since I have been caught a few times myself, albeit before the level of on-board weather and current reporting that we have now was available.
The Gulf Stream can be, particularly when in cahoots with fall weather, a cunning foe that sets traps that the unwary can easily enter with no easy way out, one or even two days before the trap snaps shut. And worse still, many, perhaps most, weather routers don’t have the necessary understanding of realistic boat performance to recognise those traps in time to avoid them.
Shake Down First
OK, this one is aimed squarely at Be Good Too. This boat was brand new and, to make matters worse, was hull number one of the design. She was so new that she was first test sailed on November 26th!
And then the delivery skipper took this boat into the North Atlantic in January, untried by an easier ocean passage. I know, that’s what delivery skippers have to do to make a living. And plenty of them do it over and over again without mishap–one of the reasons I admire many members of that profession. And I’m sure that the very experienced skipper in this case was getting all kinds of pressure to get cracking.
But the bottom line is that in this case it didn’t end well. As you can read in the account, when it got nasty, a series of cascading failures and weaknesses, most of which could probably have been found and fixed over a proper shakedown period, led to abandonment. I hope both delivery skippers and others will learn from this.
Single-Handing Is Tough
Let’s turn our attention to Easy Go. Bob, her owner, has a lot of experience, including a lot single-handed. And I’m no rabid critic of single-handing, having done quite a bit myself. But there are, in my opinion, places and times where single handing is OK, and places and times where being by yourself may not be a good idea. My suggestion is that late fall passages south from Nova Scotia are the latter.
The Root Causes
I could probably go on dissecting and second guessing these two losses for pages. However, in my opinion, most, maybe all, of the other contributing problems were rooted in the factors I have already covered, so I will stop here.
This is Not About The Abandonment Decision
One other thing, you will note that I have not tackled the thorny issue of whether or not the crews should have abandoned these boats that were still floating and relatively watertight. That’s because I have been offshore in really nasty conditions often enough to know that unless you were actually there in a given set of circumstances you really have no idea what it was like. These crews made the right abandon decision for themselves.
Having said that, the abandonment of Be Good Too does highlight the importance of having a viable steering alternative aboard in case of rudder damage.